Sunday, June 14, 2015

TV: NBC's Biggest Risk Ever?

They should have gone with Maya Rudolph.

That's all we're saying.

No offense to Neil Patrick Harris, but NBC should have gone with Maya Rudolph.


More than any other network, NBC realizes the power of variety and is willing to make a go at returning the format but they keep screwing up.

They were the network, after all, who gave Rosie O'Donnell a chance to bring variety back.

Instead, as we noted  November 30, 2008, Rosie acted as the lone gunman killing off the genre yet again.

It was truly the worst moment of television of the '00s.

It shouldn't have been that way.

Variety has long been a TV staple.

The undisputed ruler -- not just the queen -- is Carol Burnett and The Carol Burnett Show set the mark that no one else has ever risen to.

But that's far from the only success.

Variety shows (not specials) have been hosted by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and many others during the 50s and 60s.  Thoughts that the genre was stale were rejected in the late 60s not only by Carol Burnett but also by The Smothers Brothers.  By the seventies, there was something of a glut of variety shows with the best ones emerging being hosted by sonny & Cher, Flip Wilson and Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Sonny & Cher had been seen as sixties hippies and remade themselves as a more modern couple for the 70s which was generally the key to a successful variety series: You had an identifiable personality.

Talent was not enough.  The Jacksons learned that.  As did Gladys Knight and the Pips.

We're not trying to be mean but Donny and Marie Osmond had no discernible talent.  Given a strong enough song, Marie's listless, sing-song manner could often go unnoticed.  Donny's biggest problem was his inability to adapt to changing times and we'll be kind and leave it at that (at least for a few paragraphs).  The toothy two-some were living breathing cartoons.  And that image worked for a variety special which is how they lasted several seasons on ABC with so-so material and no great talent.

A VH1 Behind The Music special attempted to argue that rumors of Donny settling down with one woman sent fans packing but the reality was the show lost everything in October of 1978 when Goin' Coconuts was released.  The hideous film remains one of the 70s biggest bombs to this day and it not only destroyed the semi-hip image the duo had, it also destroyed Donny's TV hunk status (he looked like Christopher Knight throughout the film).  And it gave ABC the excuse it needed to kill the TV show.

But prior to that, they were variety genre stars.

A great deal more talent helped Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille successfully carry The Captain and Tennille series but, again, the personality aspect was very important.

Dean Martin hosted a successful NBC variety series for nine seasons with little more than a personality.  (Yes, he could sing very well but the show rested on the character he created of the intoxicated entertainer.)

Dolly Parton has an easy identifiable personality (or 'brand,' to be more 'modern') but that didn't help her with Dolly!  Her one-season variety special was pure charm when she was singing but seemed lost during the skits where the writing seemed dated and tired.

Carol was blessed with a sense of timing that went beyond comedic.  It's why her show, for example, featured a send up sketch of the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies just as TV had created renewed interest in them.

The writers of Dolly! -- and of too many other bad variety sketches -- seemed to think The Beverly Hillbillies qualified as cutting edge and current.

Which is a shame because so many great variety shows -- including the Sid Caeser and Imogene Coca classic Your Show Of Shows -- featured strong material.

But, even then, the emphasis was on personality.

A strong personality and you could overcome bad writing.

When The Judy Garland Show was airing on CBS and the execs were repeatedly retooling it, the focus was always on how Judy was portrayed.  It was never, "Let's get better writers for Judy!"  It was how is she coming off?  Is she touching the guest too often?  (CBS felt she was.)  Are viewers able to identify with her, etc.

And that's because, to bring in viewers every week, people have to feel a connection to the host.

Mary Tyler Moore is a beloved TV legend.

And for good reason.

She was brilliant in both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Viewers loved her.

So Mary, her variety series, should have been a huge hit.

Instead, it only lasted three episodes.

It goes to personality or brand.

And a new TV show was one thing but a new Mary?

Viewers didn't respond well to short-haired Mary.

Nor did they like this Mary Tyler Moore who wasn't like Mary Richards or Laura Petrie or any of the characters she'd played.

Despite two long running sitcoms, when she switched to variety, viewers didn't feel they knew her.

Do people feel they know Neil Patrick Harris?

They feel they know Barney, the character he played on How I Met Your Mother.

There's no question that he has talent -- comedic and musical.

He's done very well as the host of the Tonys, for example.

But he didn't do so well as the host of the Academy Awards, did he?

And we're not trying to argue that the Tonys is more of a niche audience (though it is) so much as we're trying to point out his tasteless Ed Snowden 'joke' ("for some treason") which appalled many on the left and left the audience present at the awards special stunned.

Neil's a centrist Democrat ("stodgy" -- is how one HIMYM cast member characterizes him).

Other than LGBT issues, he can't even be seen as progressive.

And that's a problem when your going to be hosting a variety show.

Let's go ahead and talk the elephant in the room: Donny's homophobia killed The Donny & Marie Show and killed Donny's solo singing career when "Soldier of Love" gave him a shot at a comeback.  Certain guests did not like working with the anti-gay Mormons and the complaints would get back to ABC execs who weren't exactly staging pride parades in the late 70s but knew they couldn't afford to offend the talent.  Donny's own on the set remarks were notorious and hateful.

So when the film Goin' Coconuts turned the duo into a joke, ABC was thrilled to have the excuse to cut them loose.

Neil is gay and he's married.

A lot has changed.

But being a leader on LGBT issues today isn't really leading.  It's more common sense.

The battle is won though a few fights will remain on the horizon.

Which means Neil's about as up to date in 2015 as Donny was in 1975.

If he was going to be the new Dean Martin or Cher of the variety world, that would be one thing.

But he's aiming for something more than those two stars did in their variety work.

Best Show Ever's supposed to be a blend and cutting edge (though based on the British program Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, it really strikes us more as a rip-off of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's  HitRecord on TV).  And he's the lure that's supposed to bring viewers in but when he hosted the Academy Awards he was stunningly bad and panned almost universally.

We're really worried what happens when he opens his mouth because, again, the insult to whistle-blower Ed Snowden was appalling.  And yet he thought it would be funny?

He's really not in touch with funny.

He's really not in touch with an audience either.

NBC keeps going for variety.

They realize they have to come up with a winner at some point.

And the ratings on Saturday nights are good.  That last hour of prime time, where they feature the repeats of condensed, old episodes of Saturday Night Live are doing very well indicating there's a place for variety in prime time television today.

But going with Neil Patrick Harris?

Maya Rudolph, in her one special broadcast of The Maya Rudolph Show, delivered over 7 million viewers.  That was something you could build on.

And Maya is something you can build on.

She's known.  She's loved.

She's got the personality to carry a weekly show.

Unless Neil Patrick Harris is planning to play Barney, NBC's staring down a very troubled program and in the same situation that CBS was in when successful sitcom star Mary Tyler Moore thought it was time for her to do variety.

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